Christ's Faithful People
561 - 574 AD
In spite of the comparative length of John's pontificate, not too much is known about it. This ignorance is probably due to the Lombard invasions which began during John's reign. The reconquest of Italy by the Empire had brought little happiness and less peace to the Italians. Belisarius and Narses had indeed destroyed the Ostrogoth power, but their less capable successors proved unable to protect Italy from barbarians far more destructive than the Goths, the ferocious Lombards. Then too Rome had been badly hurt by the repeated sieges undergone in the Gothic war. With the population scattered and the aqueducts broken, Rome was but the shadow of the bustling city of the Caesars. It is at this time that the ancient Senate disappears from history, while more and more the popes are forced to take up the burden of political responsibility. It is a true transition period from ancient to early medieval times.
John III was a Roman, the son of a nobleman, Anastasius. He was consecrated in mid-July 561. The main features of John's pontificate are his relations with General Narses, his ill advised reinstatement of two Gallic bishops, and his care for the monuments of Christian antiquity.
Narses, the famous eunuch and general who completed the conquest of Italy from the Goths, continued to protect the country in the first years of John's pontificate. He destroyed several armies of assorted barbarians, to the great relief of the threatened Italians. But he was accused before the Emperor Justin II of disloyalty and recalled. The whole matter is quite confused. According to the "Liber Pontificalis," Narses had gone down to Naples when Pope John, realizing how necessary he was for the country's safety, went to Naples and pleaded with him to return. After Narses had asked what mischief he had done to the Romans, Pope John replied that he himself would sooner leave Rome than have Narses abandon the city. The great general returned; but some trouble evidently arose, for Pope John retired from the city to the Church of Sts. Tiburtius and Valerian in the Catacomb of Praetextatus on the Appian Way. Narses was accused of inviting the Lombards into Italy, but this is far from certain. His removal, however, did invite them, for it created a power vacuum which these Northern wild men were quick to fill.
John III does not seem to have been well advised in his handling of an appeal from two Gallic bishops. Salonius of Embrum and Sagittarius of Gap had been deposed by a synod at Lyons on serious charges. With the favor of Guntram, King of Burgundy, they appealed to the Pope. John quashed the decision of the synod and ordered the bishops reinstated. This was a mistake, for later on they had to be deposed again by the second synod of Chalons in 579.
In spite of the troubled times, John finished the Church of Sts. Philip and James, a grand structure in the Byzantine manner, gleaming with mosaics, warm with color. He also did much for the catacombs. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that by his regulations the catacombs were preserved.
John III died July 13, 574, and was buried in St. Peter's.